Stories Of Forbidden Love: Romeo and Juliet Play Vs Irving Shulman’s Film

 One of Shakespeare’s greatest works and timeless classics RJ and Irving Shulman’s film WSS have two main similarities. One is that both these stories fall on the romance genre, and the second similarity is that they are both stories of forbidden love. While they are similar at a glance, there are a lot of contrasts between them as well. For example, RJ is a play, and WSS is a musical. 

Many modern stories inspired by these have been published since then.

Although some outright fall in the “Forbidden Love” category, such as Afghanistan's RJ, some take a more modern approach such as Kevin Kwan in Crazy Rich Asians.For similarities, both stories have a major rivalry between the two protagonists’ families. In RJ, Romeo was from the Montague family, and Juliet was from the Capulet family. In WSS, there are two rival New York City gangs: the White Jets, led by Riff and the Puerto Rican Sharks, led by Bernardo, Maria’s brother.

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Tony is in the White Jets while Maria is in the Puerto Rican Sharks. In RJ, the rivalry is shown when the Capulet’s start insulting the Montague’s by saying, 'I will bite my thumb at them; which is a disgrace to them, if they bear it,' boasts Sampson . In WSS, the Jets insult the Sharks by comparing Puerto Ricans to chickens. As Bernardo says: “More gracious living. Every one of you hates every one of us, and we hate you right back” .

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Even if WSS is the modern take on Romeo Juliet, the differences between the characters and settings can be easily noted. While in RJ, the Montagues and Capulets are families and their feud is mostly based on societal norms and standards, the feud in WSS is a different case.

 Firstly, the Jets and the Sharks are not a family; they are a gang. Secondly, while the Montagues and the Capulets do not have a particular reason to be feuding, the Jets and the Sharks have quite a few reasons, such as race, ethnicity, etc. While RJ do not have additional obstacles for societal norms, Tony and Maria have obstacles with racial segregation. The two also differ because the main people stopping RJ were Juliet’s parents as they wanted to marry her off to someone more suitable, while in WSS, it was Maria’s brother and his girlfriend who were the main barriers because Maria’s brother Bernardo was the leader of their gang. Maria and Bernardo’s parents were never even seen in the story.

Tony and Romeo both have similarities and differences. The main male lead in both stories, Tony and Romeo, fall in love with a member from their rival group. Before Juliet, Romeo was in love with Juliet’s cousin Rosaline: “Out of her favor, where I am in love” . But Romeo could not have Rosaline, which makes him fall into a depression. This is when Juliet helps him move on from Rosaline, which in turn makes him fall for Juliet. But from the beginning of WSS, Tony only loved Maria. While both leads wanted the fighting to stop, Romeo did not voice his opinion until he met Juliet, and only then did he try to do anything about the feud. On the other hand, Tony expressed his dislike for all this violence from the start. While Romeo has many peers among his group, the only friend Tony has is his best friend Riff, so Tony was more reserved than Romeo.

In the case of the female leads in the two stories, Juliet and Maria, both characters are soon to be married off but accidentally falls in love with a person from the rival group. However, the characterization of Juliet and Maria are very different. While Juliet is more soft-natured and an obedient teenager who never disobeys her parents, Maria’s characterization is more on the extroverted side. She is more playful and bolder than Juliet. As she says, But here you are. And what was just a world is a star!” While Maria is settling into a new place, America, the setting for Juliet’s story is her home. The men both characters are supposed to marry are also different. Juliet’s suitor, Paris, is not an antagonist; rather, he is the voice of conscience at the end of the play, while Maria’s suitor Chino is completely dedicated to the Sharks and also ends up killing Tony, Maria’s lover. As for plot lines, although both the male protagonists die, they die through different causes. Romeo commits suicide after realizing Juliet is dead. However, in WSS, Tony did not commit suicide. In fact, he was killed by Bernardo, the rival gang leader and Maria’s brother. And while Juliet commits suicide at the end of the story due to the loss of her lover, Maria does not. By the end, Maria becomes the voice of reason about all the violence that was happening, which resulted in the death of both her lover and her brother. Another similarity was between the nurse that took care of Juliet and Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend. Both were aware that the female leads were with somebody they should not be with. While Anita discouraged this relationship and advised Maria to break it off, the nurse encourages Juliet to continue her relationship with Romeo. Maria and Anita also worked at a bridal shop while Juliet did not have a job. In WSS, Tony’s best friend was Riff and in RJ, Romeo’s best friend was Mercutio. Both get killed. However, Mercutio is killed during the duel between Romeo and Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin. On the other hand, Riff is killed during the battle between Tony and Bernardo, Maria’s brother. Mercutio is also not a member of the Montague house while Riff is a member of the gang. 

The settings of RJ and WSS are also different. RJ takes place in the thirteenth or fourteenth century in Italy. However, WSS takes place in a more modern time in the Upper West Side of New York City in the late fifties. The outfits worn by the characters were also different. In RJ, conservative clothing was a big factor. But in WSS, each character was stylized in their own unique and colorful fashion. Marriage played a different role in both stories, too. In RJ, marriage had a very important role as RJ saw that marrying off was the only way to be truly together. RJ got married in secret, and as a result, Juliet could not marry Paris as she was already married to Romeo. But in WSS, Maria and Tony never got married and simply enjoyed each other’s company. Although they did discuss the topic, that was all there was to it. The first meetings of the lovers were also in different settings. RJ first met at a ball where they were wearing masks, so when Romeo asked Juliet to dance with him and she accepted, they were unaware that they were dancing with the rival family’s member. But when Tony and Maria first meet, they were at a gym dance. They were not wearing masks, and it was love at first sight. While nobody noticed RJ at first, when Tony and Maria were dancing, Bernardo immediately notices it. The weapons used in both stories are different, too. The weapons used in RJ are swords, but instead of swords, guns were used as the weapon of choice in WSS. Swords were not used in any scene in WSS, while it would have been impossible to use guns in RJ due to the time setting. Also, the theme of religion is more abundant in RJ while it played little to no role in WSS. In RJ, it was considered a sin to even kiss, while in WSS, it was not a big a deal to kiss from a religious standpoint. Therefore, the role of a religious and conservative society is obvious in the setting of RJ. The people of power in the stories were the prince in RJ and the police in WSS. But the prince in RJ had more power than the police. It should also be noted that the famous balcony scene from RJ was changed to the fireplace scene in WSS. While the cause of the rivalry between the families in RJ is not specified, the rivalry between the two gangs of WSS had a reason. As the Puerto Rican Sharks started settling in New York, the New York “Jets” felt like the new gang was trying to take up their territory, starting the rivalry. Additionally, the unspecified rivalry has been going on even before the birth of the main characters, so it can be concluded that the Montagues and the Capulets were fighting for generations. 

However, this is obviously not the case for the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks. RJ and WSS are two stories that parallel each other. They have the similar plot lines, albeit different stories, and they have similar characters, albeit different outcomes for all of them. But both stories will always be remembered for their coming-of-age style of showing forbidden love, violence, and tragedy.  

Works cited

  1. Shakespeare, W., & Thompson, A. (2011). Romeo and Juliet. Arden Shakespeare.
  2. Wise, R., & Robbins, J. (Directors). (1961). West Side Story [Film]. United Artists.
  3. Gibson, R. (2008). Romeo and Juliet in Afghanistan. London: Methuen Drama.
  4. Kwan, K. (2013). Crazy Rich Asians. Doubleday.
  5. Greenblatt, S. (2010). Romeo and Juliet in Palestine: Teaching Under Occupation. The Kenyon Review, 32(4), 132-146.
  6. Kerrigan, J. (2016). Myths and Motifs of West Side Story. Journal of Popular Culture, 49(1), 21-35.
  7. Bryson, M. (2014). ""A Constant Discord"": Romantic Love and Rivalry in Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story. Critical Survey, 26(1), 60-71.
  8. Hassan, W. M. (2018). West Side Story, a 21st century adaptation. International Journal of English Literature and Social Sciences, 3(1), 7-14.
  9. Skal, D. J. (2012). The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. Macmillan.
  10. Miller, A. (1955). The Crucible. Penguin Books.
Updated: Feb 17, 2024
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Stories Of Forbidden Love: Romeo and Juliet Play Vs Irving Shulman’s Film. (2024, Feb 17). Retrieved from

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